August 30, 2012; East Hartford, CT, USA; Connecticut Huskies linebacker Yawin Smallwood (33) celebrates after sacking Massachusetts Minuteman quarterback Mike Wegzyn (11) during the first quarter at Rentschler Field. Mandatory Credit: Michael Ivins-US Presswire

2014 NFL Draft: Pre-Season Breakdown - Yawin Smallwood, ILB Connecticut

The Connecticut Huskies have had a rough track record in the NFL Draft in recent years but the recent coaching staff has done an excellent job coaching and developing defensive players.  Last year, four players were selected including a pair of linebackers.  This year, the Huskies have another talented inside linebacker in Yawin Smallwood, who is still going to be a junior.  Smallwood has shown to be an extremely effective run stopper who had 59 solo tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, a pair of forced fumbles and 4 pass breakups as a sophomore.

Smallwood shows a tremendous amount of promise and as they are going to be without a number of key members of their defense this year, he is going to have to continue improving.  He has shown to be a terrific run stopping specialist but he needs to show more viability on third down.  At this point, he looks like a top 100 pick to be a two down run stopping specialist but if he can do more in coverage and be viable as more than just a blitz option on passing downs, he can move up much further, should he declare.

Vitals & Build

Smallwood is listed at 6’3” 235lbs with impressive strength.  He still has the capacity to continue adding weight without losing athleticism.  Smallwood has good acceleration and goes downhill quickly and shows decent speed, but his agility in short areas and long speed are not great for the position.  He demonstrates a high motor and will keep playing for second and third chances.  Smallwood is going to continue getting stronger but improving his fluidity and his ability to change directions quickly would benefit him more than anything going forward.

Tackling

Smallwood is an impact tackler who is extremely consistent when it comes to wrapping up ball carriers, driving through them, and giving up little if any ground.  He takes good angles, he does not resort to just throwing his shoulder or body at opponents, and keeps his legs under him and uses them to drive through contact.  Smallwood rarely misses tackles if he can get his hands on the opponent and is able to consistently deliver strength when he tackles. He has the ability to jolt ball carriers and potentially cause a fumble on contact.  Occasionally, he tackles high and is not in ideal position but he piles up the tackles and makes virtually every play the Huskies need him to make.

Run Support

Smallwood has terrific instincts, diagnoses and reacts to plays at a high level.  He has shown an impressive ability to flow to the ball, find paths through trash, and work in tight spaces.  Smallwood keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage which enables him to always have the ability to attack forward, rarely has him out of position to make tackles, and allows him to absorb contact from a point of strength.

Smallwood also does a good job of taking on blocks.  Because he stays square to the line, he is able to fire off a good punch and can use it to jolt the ball carrier as well as opposing blockers.  He is able to maintain a base that rarely puts him at a point of weakness, so while he will occasionally be washed out by an offensive lineman, it is not common.  If Smallwood is able to continue adding strength, that combined with additional experience should allow him to get even better in this area, but he is light years ahead of most players as a sophomore.  Smallwood is a technician as a run defender.

The defensive scheme Connecticut runs appears to have Smallwood focus on the A and B gaps.  This is part of why he is able to play square to the line of scrimmage and dominate the run up the middle the way he does.  Smallwood can and does make plays outside and his instincts make him able to get outside and make plays, but he is at his best inside.

The other underrated part of Smallwood’s game is the fact he is almost never on the ground.  The few times offensive linemen are able to get the best of him, he stays up and keeps fighting.  He does not lunge to tackle and shows good balance, which make him that much more frustrating from the offensive point of view.

Coverage

Smallwood seems to understand zone concepts and what he is supposed to be doing within the defense, but he does not look terribly comfortable in it.  He just looks like a different player against the run; plays faster, looks stronger, and seems more alive.  As a pass defender, at times he does not appear like he trusts what he sees and will get caught in awkward positions.  Smallwood appears to be thinking more than playing from this position, which should improve with more experience and confidence.

He does read the quarterback’s eyes and tries to respond, but he does not close on the ball terribly well.  Smallwood gets into his drops relatively well, but his lack of range and fluidity can be exposed by teams that spread out the defense.  If Smallwood is going to miss tackles, it seems to be in pass coverage where he has more real estate to cover.

Overall, Smallwood has a lot of developing to do in this area and much of it comes down to the fact that he simply did not look comfortable.  Even if he does not improve an iota athletically, if he plays with the same level of comfort and confidence as he does the run, the difference will be noticeable.  Now, if he can also improve athletically in terms of his fluidity and ability to change directions, it will only make him that much better.  The good news is he has two years of eligibility to improve in this area if he so chooses.

Pass Rush & Blitz ability

Because of his ability to attack downhill as well as take on and shed blocks, Smallwood can be a good blitz option in the middle of a defense.  He has enough acceleration to get in and make a play quickly, catching the opponent by surprise.  He will give it his all and stay with the play, but he will have trouble catching athletic quarterbacks who see him coming.  If the quarterback is slower or does not see him coming, he can make a play and lay a good hit on the quarterback.  Smallwood is a good but not great option when it comes to rushing the quarterback.

System Fit

The best fit for Smallwood is as an inside linebacker in the 3-4.  He has the ability to be a thumping inside linebacker that can dominate the run up the middle with a focused workload.  Allowing him to play downhill with an attacking style is where he is at his best, so a 3-4 defense that lets him loose in the middle is his most ideal fit.

Smallwood could certainly play in the middle of a 4-3 defense as well.  He would be better served if that scheme wants to focus him in the middle from guard to guard, but he could play a larger area if needed.  Smallwood is a special run defender and should only get even better with experience.

While he is a better fit in the middle, his length and ability to take on blocks also make him a player who can slide over and play the strong side linebacker.  If the team who ends up with Smallwood has a great middle linebacker and wants to find a way to get Smallwood on the field, having him play the strong side could accomplish that for a run stopping unit.

At this point, Smallwood is a good 2-down linebacker and is going to need to prove he can contribute on passing downs.  He is able to blitz up the middle but has shown almost nothing in man coverage to this point and while he can play in zone concepts, he needs to improve before a team can rely on him.  Based on what he did on tape last year, let him dominate on run downs and try to develop his ability in pass defense.  At worst, he is a tremendous run defender but if he can improve as a pass defender and become a complete linebacker, he is a big time player.

Schedule

Thu, Aug. 29 vs. Towson
Sat, Sept. 14 vs. Maryland
Sat, Sept. 21 vs. Michigan
Sat, Sept 28 at Buffalo
Sat, Oct. 12 vs. South Florida
Sat, Oct. 19 at Cincinnati
Sat, Oct. 26 at Central Florida
Fri, Nov. 8 vs. Louisville
Sat, Nov. 16 at SMU
Sat, Nov. 23 at Temple
Sat, Nov. 30 vs. Rutgers
Sat, Dec. 7 vs. Memphis

Notable Games

The game against Michigan will be a good test for Smallwood with a dual threat quarterback in Devin Gardner and a pro-style running game.  Going down to Orlando to play Central Florida pits them against Blake Bortles, their huge quarterback.  It would not be a surprise to see he and Smallwood to meet in he hole once or twice.  The game against Louisville is huge as the Huskies were able to beat Louisville last year on the road and get them in Storrs this year.  Louisville will be the prohibitive favorite to win the Big East again this year and the Husky defense is going to need to make plays against Teddy Bridgewater in the passing game which should give Smallwood opportunities to make an impact.

NFL Comparison

Smallwood’s game could be similar to that of Navorro Bowman of the San Francisco 49ers.  The former Nittany Lion plays next to Patrick Willis and is there to shut down the run and occasionally get after the quarterback.  The 49er defense is predicated on being a dominating force against the run and Smallwood can bring that type of impact to a team at the next level.  Bowman and Smallwood are talented run stoppers who are not great in pass defense at the moment, but both could improve and make a larger impact going forward.

Draft Projection

Smallwood is a tremendous run defender and with another year developing could make a huge impact for a team in that respect as a 2-down specialist.  Despite the fact he only appears ready to play the run, he does it at a high enough level that he should still go in the top 100.  If he can improve and become a more viable option against the pass, he should be able to secure himself a spot in the first two rounds of the NFL draft if he opts to declare.

Tags: 2014 Mock Draft 2014 NFL Draft Connecticut Huskies Football Inside Linebackers Middle Linebackers Yawin Smallwood

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